The phrase ‘beautiful ruins’ resounds in a way that allows it to work well in a number of instances—the name of a band, a poem , Louis Menand’s apt description of actor Richard Burton or as in the present, the name of Jess Walter’s (The Financial Lives of Poets)latest opus, Beautiful Ruins(Harper).
The extended time frame in Beautiful Ruins (the bucolic pre Viet Nam ’60s to the present reality TV epoch)allows Jess Walter a broad canvas for his well-honed humor as well as his gentle handling of a panoply of human frailties. With the chaotic production of the disaster flick Cleopatra (remember Liz and Dick) serving as the background, Walter weaves a tragicomedy with a likable ensemble of characters—Dee an actress working on that film, young Pasquale Tursi living in a backwater coastal Italian village, former publicist turned producer Michael Deane, his film loving assistant, Claire Silver and Alvis Bender, an alcoholic American writer who has written one chapter of his novel in 10 years.
Beautiful Ruins is intricately assembled to connect the lives of a disparate group of people into a bittersweet pastiche of the social mores of the past 50 years. Bender’s wartime experience, Dee’s small town ambitions to become an actress, Pasquale’s dreams of creating a destination hotel that attracts American’s, Dee’s son’s aspirations for rock and roll fame and fortune, Micheal Deane’s Hollywood rise and fall and rise and Claire Silver’s conflicted affair with cinema and it attendant business— all these are weathervanes for the high winds of wit and hilarity that Jess Walter breathes into this lovely story.
I think Rick Russo has said it best, “Why mince words? Beautiful Ruins is an absolute masterpiece”
Here’s a clever exercise (published in Esquire) by Walter, a 79 word short story:
Buckley took a hooker to his twenty-year reunion. Outside the Marriott, he explained the joke: She’d pose as his wife. Ryanna looked devastated. She kept glancing at her nametag: “Mrs. Ryanna Buckley.” But she nailed it — charming, lovely, always squeezing his arm. By dessert, he was in love. “What about kids?” someone asked. “We want at least three,” Buckley said. Ryanna ran crying from the room. Buckley looked everywhere. He found her in the men’s room, blowing Marshall Doyle.
I am chatting with Jess Walter soon and expect that conversation to appear in one of the usual places in which t my gabfests (The Morning News, Identity Theory, The Millions, LA Review of Books)appear.
Currently reading Twilight of the Elites by Christopher Hayes (Crown)